Acute Stress Disorder

Acute Stress Disorder occurs when someone has been exposed to a traumatic event in which the person or someone else was seriously injured or threatened with serious injury or death. The person's response often involves intense fear, helplessness, or horror.

Some individuals subsequently experience a general psychological numbing, including feeling detached from others, less emotional responsiveness, or reduced awareness of their surroundings (e.g., dazed).

The person may feel as if in a dream or as though he or she is an outside observer of reality and/or may feel as though his or her own body or body parts are unreal or do not belong to him or her. These feelings are called dissociation and may include being unable to recall some important details of the trauma.

Persistent re-experiencing of the event in the form of recurrent, intrusive images, thoughts, or perceptions or through recurrent distressing dreams is common. A small percentage of individuals feel as through the traumatic event were actually recurring, including a sense of reliving the experience though illusions, hallucinations, and flashback episodes that occur while awake or intoxicated.

Part of re-experiencing can include intense psychological distress or physiological reactivity when exposed to internal or external reminders of the traumatic event. Some people experience panic symptoms or even a full-blown Panic Attack when faced with reminders.

In turn, individuals often try to avoid thoughts, feelings, conversations, activities, places, or people that remind them of the trauma. They also experience heightened physiological reactivity that can result in sleep difficulties, irritability or anger, poor concentration, constantly being on guard for danger and/or being easily startled.

These symptoms begin within 4 weeks of the traumatic event and have lasted for at least 2 days up to a maximum of 4 weeks. If the symptoms persist for longer than 4 weeks a diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder may be warranted.

People with Acute Stress Disorder often experience symptoms of depression. It is important to inform your Mental Health Professional of previous traumatic experiences in order to avoid being misdiagnosed with depression when a primary or additional diagnosis of Acute Stress Disorder is warranted.


The treatment for PTSD involves directly addressing the symptoms of re-experiencing, avoidance, numbing, and hyperarousal, as well as helping the individual to process the traumatic event itself. Current research indicates that Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) are the best treatment for PTSD. In both CBT and EMDR, the person learns to mentally process the traumatic event in a different way in order to eliminate reexperiencing.  Treatment also involves having the individual engage in activities in a systematic, step-by-step manner that results in less anxiety in response to reminders of the trauma. Working through the trauma involves learning new ways of thinking and feeling about the events that enables the person to move forward.